Is A No-Mow Lawn For You?

Molly GraceAugust 14, 2019

Americans really like their lawns. In fact, we like them so much that they’re our largest irrigated crop, taking up three times the space of any other irrigated crop. As a country, we produce more grass than corn.

But is all that green really so “green?” While traditional turf grass provides some environmental benefits, it also requires a lot of maintenance in the form of time, effort and potentially harmful chemicals.

Enter the no-mow lawn, an eco-friendly alternative to the classic turf lawn. Whether your aim is to make your land more welcoming to the local ecosystem, cut down on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, or simply to save time and resources on lawn care, the no-mow life could be for you.

What Is The No-Mow Movement?

With all the time, money and chemicals that often go into keeping traditional turf grass looking good, some are starting to question if all that effort – and pollution – is worth it.

The philosophy of “no-mow” encapsulates a variety of different methods aimed at making residential lawns more natural, lower-maintenance and less resource-consuming. It’s not about just tossing your lawnmower and letting your yard fall into disrepair; it’s more intentional.

This may mean planting a native grass species, using part of your yard for a vegetable garden, or simply mowing less frequently and committing to not putting potentially harmful chemicals into the earth.

The purpose of no-mow is to encourage landowners to use fewer resources caring for their lawns and provide a more natural habitat for the local ecosystem.

The Environmental Impact Of The Classic American Lawn

Turf grass, the plant you typically think of when picturing a lush, green lawn, often requires a lot of resources to thrive in most yards.

Lawns need to be mowed regularly, which uses gasoline and contributes to air pollution (unless you have an electric mower).

Then come the chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that can run off into streams or leach into the groundwater. What remains on the grass is left for children and pets to ingest, absorb and inhale as they play in the yard.

Harmful chemicals can also get tracked indoors on clothes and shoes or wafted through open windows and vents as they’re being applied.

Lawn chemicals can contaminate our drinking water and harm or kill fish and insects, throwing the entire ecosystem out of balance. They can also be toxic to humans, especially when not used properly.

Long-term exposure to certain lawn chemicals may be linked to serious health issues, including cancer, though more research is needed to know for sure.

Additionally, a typical lawn isn’t the ideal habitat for local pollinator populations. Pollinators, such as bees, are vital to our ecosystem. Shrinking habitats and bee-killing pesticides are among some of the reasons why pollinator populations are in decline.

Even the amount of water used to maintain a lawn can be problematic, especially in certain areas like California, where droughts are frequent.

However, it’s not all bad; lawns can contribute a lot of good things to the environment. They produce oxygen, store carbon, prevent soil erosion and reduce runoff. Grassy spaces in cities can help reduce the urban heat island effect. Grass also provides a soft place for playing, picnicking and gathering.

How A No-Mow Lawn Can Help

The problem with the classic turf grass lawn is all the resources that go into maintaining it. By turning to low-maintenance no-mow methods, you can reduce the negative impact your lawn has on the environment, save yourself from exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and even free up your weekends for non-lawn-care-related activities.

Lawn Alternatives

If you want to get started with the no-mow method, you have a few different options. You can introduce native, low-growing, ornamental or groundcover plant species into your yard to replace your turf grass, plant a garden, work on making your current turf grass lawn more eco-friendly, introduce elements that reduce the amount of water your lawn requires (called xeriscaping) or do some combination of all these things.

Replace The Turf

If you have trouble keeping your turf grass green without a lot of chemical help, it might make sense to think about replacing portions of it with something that grows easier or requires less chemical maintenance.

Consider replacing your turf with grasses that are native to your area. Elaine Krizenesky, National Office Director of Wild Ones, a nonprofit environmental education and advocacy corporation that aims to promote environmentally sound landscaping practices, said that native plants provide the best food for local pollinators and other insects.

“It can be compared to human food: native plants are like vegetables, and non-natives are like fast food. You can eat fast food once in a while, but it’s not good for you and not something you can do long-term and stay healthy. Pollinators are a crucial piece of the food chain. Two out of every three bites of food depend on pollinators!” Krizenesky said.

The other main benefit of opting for native plants, she said, is that their deep root systems enable them to better retain water and prevent erosion. They also save time and money.

“They have adapted to local conditions, so once they are established, they do not need watering, fertilizers or pesticides,” Krizenesky said.

What plants you choose to replace your turf grass with will depend on the aesthetic you want, the area you’re in and how much maintenance you’re willing to take on.

If you’re searching for a certain look, you can find ornamental grasses or grass-like plants such as rushes and sedges of all different types, from ones that look more like typical turf grass to ones that grow tall with big feathery plumes.

For a lower-maintenance grass species, look to fine fescue. Fine fescue grasses tend to be slow-growing, meaning you won’t have to mow as often. They also don’t need a ton of water or fertilizer, making them ideal for an eco-friendly yard.

To reduce the area you have to mow, you might consider planting a small wildflower meadow or designating an area of your lawn for a groundcover plant such as clover or creeping thyme. Groundcovers are great because they require little maintenance and won’t grow tall.

If you aren’t sure what to plant, your local university extension office will likely be able to point you in the right direction and tell you what’s native to your area. It may even have information online so you can easily educate yourself on how to achieve a native, natural lawn.

Krizenesky also recommended connecting with a local Wild Ones chapter, which can help you figure out what’s native to your area and give you advice on where to plant and other useful tips.

Flex Your Green Thumb

You might also consider planting a garden to replace some of your lawn. Gardens are great for the soil, increase biodiversity and reduce your reliance on store-bought produce, which can have a significant carbon footprint depending on how far it traveled to get to your local supermarket.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and berries are some of the easier veggies and fruits beginners can try their hand at. If you don’t want to grow edibles, taking the time to design a beautiful flower garden can be a fun and environmentally friendly task. Plus, planting flowering plants will support your local bee populations.

Make Your Turf More Eco-Friendly

If replacing all or even parts of your lawn is too big of a task, there are ways you can make your current turf grass lawn a better friend to the environment.

Mowing less frequently is one of the simplest things you can do to improve your lawn’s environmental impact – and probably the most welcome, as it puts time back into your week that you can use for more exciting activities.

Research has shown that mowing less often can significantly improve your yard’s bee habitat. According to the research, which was conducted by the USDA Forest Service, mowing once every 2 weeks seems to be the sweet spot.

If you need to mow your lawn regularly, consider investing in an electric lawn mower. You can find both corded and battery-powered versions that will save you money on gas and won’t create the same harmful pollution that gas-powered mowers do.

Mowing at a higher setting is another thing you can do that’s good for your lawn as well. Mowing at a height of 3.5 to 4 inches encourages the establishment of a deeper root system, making the grass more drought tolerant. Taller grass also crowds out weed growth and provides a lusher appearance.

You can also consider reducing the areas you mow by planting shrubs or trees, landscaping with mulch or hardscaping.

After mowing, leaving the grass clippings on your lawn (provided they aren’t too thick) can make a good natural fertilizer as they decompose. If you need to supplement with fertilizer, switch to an organic one or use compost.

While you may be conditioned to don your gardening gloves at the first hint of weed growth, don’t be so quick to pull. Flowering weeds like dandelions can be an important source of food for pollinators.

If you want to keep most of your turf but are open to adding a few natives, you could consider planting a “native garden,” an area of your yard dedicated to native plants.

“Turf grass can be used to create a border around native gardens. This is not only aesthetically pleasing, it shows that the garden was planned, as opposed to a bunch of growing weeds. Some people think natives are weeds because many grow very tall and most don’t flower right away,” Krizenesky said.

Build A Waterless Environment

Xeriscaping is a style of landscaping that was developed as a solution for drought-prone areas. The aim of xeriscaping is to limit the amount of irrigation an area needs, helping to conserve water.

What shape your xeriscaped lawn takes will depend on your area’s climate. Your university extension office or local garden center may be able to help you find native plants that require little water.

Look for areas of your yard where you can replace grass with pathways, hardscaping or drought-resistant plants. Strategically locate your plants so their sunlight and water needs are met naturally, locating plants that need more irrigation in areas of your yard where they’ll receive more natural rainwater.

Krizenesky recommended purchasing or building a rain barrel to collect rainwater to water your plants with, which can help cut down on your water usage.

Rewrite The Rules

Depending on how wild you let your lawn get, you may bump up against local ordinances or homeowners’ association (HOA) landscaping requirements. Refusing to comply with requests from your local government or your neighborhood’s HOA to tame your new, eco-friendly lawn can lead to fines and other actions being taken against you.

Avoid this trouble by knowing what the local rules are ahead of time and doing your best to comply with them.

“Most plant catalogs note the height the plant will reach. Planting shorter natives, four inches and under, may be enough to avoid complaints,” Krizenesky said.

She also reiterated that putting a border around the native areas can help the landscape look neater and more controlled.

If you still wind up with a notice from the city that your lawn has become a “nuisance,” you can always push back and explain the positive impact your lawn has on the environment. Ultimately, though, you may still be required to comply.

If the current rules are pretty clearly anti-no-mow, don’t give up just yet; be the change you want to see in the world. Attend an HOA board meeting or petition your local government and present your case for changing the rules.

Explain why well-maintained natural lawns are better for the environment and the community. You may find that people are more open to the idea than you think.

“Wild Ones has a lot of information, research and sample ordinances that people can use in conversations with their local government or HOA. Members sometimes get together and approach town meetings as a group. Often, it just takes a good attitude and some education to get native plants added to the approved plant list!” Krizenesky said.

Table of Contents

    Molly Grace

    Molly Grace is a staff writer focusing on mortgages, personal finance and homeownership. She has a B.A. in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @themollygrace.